Trigger Warning: The author of this article addresses suicidal ideation and other suicidal warning signs.
Like many couples, when my husband and I were married we promised to love and take care of one another in sickness and health. So when he spiraled into a dark depression leaving him like a husk of the man I loved, I felt devastated and lost. I wanted to help him, but I soon realized that there was no quick way I could take away his pain.
Even though my husband and I have struggled with our mental health for years, my husband has been less likely to reach out and seek treatment for his depression and suicidal ideation. It wasn’t until after we had kids that he agreed to seek help and was able to stay consistent with his treatment. While mental illnesses can impact men and women, men (like my husband) typically are less likely to receive mental health treatment.
Mental health can be difficult to navigate, especially as parents. It can seem even more isolating and even embarrassing to admit to having a difficult time with depression or other mental illnesses. But it is important to remind your partner (and yourself) that in order to be able to be there for your children, you need to make sure that you are not just healthy physically but mentally.
Here are five ways to help your partner when they are struggling with depression.
1. Learn About Depression Yourself
Despite having personal experience with depression, it was essential for me to remember that not everyone has the same experience. It is important for the partners of those with depression to do their own research to learn about all the symptoms and possible warning signs of a serious episode.
Licensed mental health counselor Erin Parisi, suggests trying to think about your partner when they are not depressed versus them as the symptoms they experience when they are depressed.
“You love ‘Mary’ and that’s why you choose to partner with her,” she said. “But ‘Depression’ has no motivation, energy, is sad, negative, hopeless, helpless, eats too little and sleeps too much, doesn’t help with the house, isn’t interested in sex, isn’t involved with the family, etc.”
She stressed thinking of your partner as having an illness, a brain disorder, not as though there is something wrong with who they are as a person.
Think of your partner as having an illness… not as though there is something wrong with who they are as a person.
According to Parisi, it is also best to avoid words like “crazy,” “broken,” or “damaged” and to try and use words like “unwell,” “unhealthy,” or even “sick.” Words have a lot of power in shaping our mindset.
If your partner is comfortable, it may be beneficial to attend a therapy session with them. A professional can help suggest the most helpful way to support your partner. And your partner may not be able to advocate for themselves during a depressive episode.
2. Encourage Treatment
When my husband is in a particular slump he can miss therapy appointments, forget to schedule check-ins with his psychiatrist, and forget to take his medications. When there is a lapse in treatment during a particularly difficult depressive episode, it can turn into a domino effect where he keeps feeling worse and worse.
Gently and consistently encouraging your partner to attend their appointments and take their medication, if prescribed, can help. I have also found that it helps when we attend couples counseling to learn skills to support one another.
Psychotherapist and relationship coach Toni Coleman also suggests her clients do individual and couples counseling if they have the necessary resources to afford both.
“However, if time and money are limited,” she said. “The best way to make this decision is to assess the most urgent needs and issues, then decide if they would be best addressed in intense individual work or by helping spouses improve their communication and work together to resolve them.”
Providing more unconditional love, empathetic listening, and support than usual may help too. This can look like asking them how they feel or offering to help with chores they may not have the energy to complete.
3. Help Them Manage Their Symptoms
Parisi suggests it can be helpful to support a partner with depression in doing things that help manage their depression symptoms: like encouraging regular psychiatrist and therapist appointments, attending some appointments together, encouraging good hygiene, getting out of bed, eating appropriately, doing homework from the therapist, taking medication(s) as prescribed, etc.
As someone who has dealt with depression (and had a partner with depression) I know when someone is in a dark place, doing something for themselves can seem like an impossible task. When I’m in that place, putting laundry away, showering, eating, and doing other basic things can seem too difficult to complete. So when I notice my husband hasn’t showered in a few days or hasn’t eaten much, I find getting involved even in the smallest of ways—like offering some gentle encouragement and reminders to help him care for himself—has helped us.
When someone is in a dark place, doing something for themselves can seem like an impossible task.
To help manage daily stressors, Coleman also suggests parents can use fun and play as a physical outlet for stress. But she recommended planning out the time to avoid feeling the need to hurry and tend to other responsibilities. My husband and I take this approach as well and like to work on simple projects with our children that bring us joy or a walk around the neighborhood to get some fresh air.
4. Learn the Warning Signs of Suicidal Ideation
At its most basic level, “suicidal ideation” means thoughts about suicide. It can take different forms—from talking about wanting to die or saying they are a burden. There are some important red flags to watch out for when your partner is experiencing depression.
According to the National Institute of Mental health, some suicidal warning signs are:
- Taking risks
- Mood swings
- Unusual sleep habits
- Feeling hopeless
- Making a plan or researching ways to die
- Giving away important items or saying goodbye
Parisi suggests if your loved one is talking about suicide, professional intervention is necessary. Have them assessed by their doctor or therapist as soon as possible or call 911. She tells families she would rather the person be mad for hospitalizing them unnecessarily than dead (or seriously injured) because they didn’t take them seriously.
Store the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and the Crisis Textline (741741) in your phone and your partner’s phone. You can also set up a plan with your partner and their healthcare professional so you can act fast in case of emergency.
5. Remember, Depression is Treatable
Whether you or your partner is struggling with depression, it is important to remember the things that bring you joy. They can be as simple as taking a long shower to a lovely walk with the family around the neighborhood. Having depression can sometimes make it seem like there is nothing good left in the world, but by simply pushing to do something small that brings you joy, you can take one step after another to work towards healing.
And above all, remember that depression is treatable. You just have to find what works for you. Maybe it’s therapy and medication or exercise and a trusted confidant. Finding healthy ways to treat depression is key.
Try to remember the hard days will pass, depression is not undefeatable, and you or your partner can get better with time, love, and a little help.
If you think you may be experiencing depression, it’s important to reach out and get help. See your doctor, get in contact with a therapist, and/or talk to a close friend or family member.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions, please get help immediately.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Crisis Textline: Text CONNECT to 741741